Saving children’s smiles with a warm heart

September, 18/2022 - 08:16
Professor Rong-Min Baek, a well-known plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Seoul, South Korea, with over 30 years of experience, has performed over 4,000 operations on poor Vietnamese patients.

On the 25th anniversary of Smile for Children in Việt Nam, an organisation which gives free surgery to poor children with facial deformities, Bùi Quỳnh Hoa talks to Professor Rong-Min Baek, director of Bundang Hospital of Seoul National University, and head of the Smile for Children, about his work.

WINNING SMILE: Professor Rong-Min Baek, director of Bundang Hospital of Seoul National University, and head of the Smile for Children. Photo courtesy of Prof Rong-Min Baek

Professor Rong-Min Baek, a well-known plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Seoul, South Korea, with over 30 years of experience, has performed over 4,000 operations on poor Vietnamese patients. For his humanitarian work, he was honoured with the Friendship Medal of Việt Nam and the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award

Inner Sanctum: Could you talk about the trip to Việt Nam to give free operations to children suffering from facial deformities this September?

This year, we will visit Central Military Hospital 108 in Hà Nội from September 19 to 24. We will be performing various craniofacial operations, including on cleft lip and cleft palate patients. While it has been 28 years since our first trip to Việt Nam, this year marks the 25th anniversary of our trip because of the three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are especially excited to meet our old friends and resume our long-standing relationship with Việt Nam.

Inner Sanctum: Smile for Children has provided thousands of operations for children with craniofacial anomalies in Việt Nam and other countries. Could you tell us about the association?

Smile for Children was established in 1996 by Dr Se-Min Baek, a world-renowned craniofacial surgeon. There are three main goals of the foundation: to provide free operations to economically disadvantaged patients, to train craniofacial surgeons and experts for future generations, and to change the general population's view on craniofacial deformities by reducing social stigmas through operations, trips, and events.

Our foundation's very first international cooperation was in Việt Nam. We have visited over 10 countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan.

Inner Sanctum: The association cooperates with Central Military Hospital 108's Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery. Why did you choose this centre to cooperate and have a long-term relationship with?

After the normalisation of diplomatic relations between [South] Korea and Việt Nam in 1995, we inquired with the Vietnamese embassy in [South] Korea about possible volunteer trips for cleft lip and palate patients.

We were introduced to the then Major General and People's Doctor Nguyễn Huy Phan, who laid the foundation for plastic surgery and reconstructive microsurgery in Việt Nam. Prof Phan was then Deputy Director of Central Military Hospital 108 and the founder of the first Department of Plastic Surgery at Hà Nội Medical University.

Reconstructive microsurgery is a surgical discipline that uses microscopes and precision instruments to repair intricate structures such as blood vessels and nerves of less than two millimetres. This field has greatly impacted restoring form and function to individuals impaired by trauma, cancer and congenital anomalies.

It was a great honour to work with a man of such character, who inspired us to expand our volunteer trips. We have maintained a close relationship and continued our collaboration with the doctors at the Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery of Central Military Hospital 108 for more than 25 years.

Together, we have travelled to over 20 provinces around Việt Nam.

We still keep a close relationship with Dr Nguyễn Huy Thọ, Dr Vũ Ngọc Lâm and Dr Nguyễn Quang Đức as partners in our missions.

Inner Sanctum: How many free surgeries have been carried out so far by the association in collaboration with the centre in Việt Nam? And how many patients have there been?

In Việt Nam, we have performed an average of 100-150 operations per trip. Over the past 25 years, we have performed 4,091 operations.

PATIENT CARE: Prof Rong-Min Baek (first, right) during his trip to Việt Nam to give free operations to children suffering facial deformities. Photo courtesy of Prof Rong-Min Baek

Inner Sanctum: On the 60th anniversary of Central Military Hospital 108's Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery, as director of Bundang Hospital of Seoul National University, could you say something about the centre's staff?

I would like to express my sincere admiration and congratulations to Central Military Hospital 108's Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery. The achievements of the team, especially Dr Lâm, Dr Đức, Dr Linh and others, are truly remarkable. We hope to maintain our friendship and partnership for many decades to come.

Inner Sanctum: Why did you choose this difficult job?

Craniofacial anomalies are not matters of life and death. However, they can devastate a patient's confidence and daily life. I take great joy and pride in treating and helping these patients achieve a normal life.

Inner Sanctum: Who is your role model who shaped who you are today?

Dr Se-Min Baek. He was a pioneer in the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery. While he has been retired for many years, his principles still live with us today.

Inner Sanctum: What are your impressions on your trips to Việt Nam?

The Vietnamese are kind, smart, friendly, and diligent. I was thrilled and impressed by the people, culture, and food from the very first day of our first trip.

Also, working with the Vietnamese staff both in and out of Việt Nam has been a great honour and pleasure.

TEAM EFFORT: Prof Rong-Min Baek (fifth from right, first row) with his Korean team and doctors from the Central Military Hospital 108’s Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery during a trip to Thanh Hóa Province in 2015. Photo courtesy of Prof Rong-Min Baek

Inner Sanctum: Calling sponsors to raise funds for free surgical trips must be a headache. Which corporations and surgeons support your organisation?

Yes, fundraising can be a challenge and the source of great headaches. Fortunately for us, SK corporation and its subsidiaries, including SK Telecom, SK Ecoplant, and more, have provided us with great financial support since day one. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the group who have made these trips possible.

Inner Sanctum: For your decades-long humanitarian works, you received the Friendship Medal from the President of Việt Nam in 2016 and were honoured with the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award in 2014. How do you feel about such recognition?

The great honour truly humbles me. But such recognition is not for me alone but for our entire team and supporters. I would like to thank them once again for this opportunity.

Inner Sanctum: What are your plans to help more poor children suffering in future?

To do it for as long as possible. VNS

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